Tuesday, 19 February 2008

STEMming the tide

Over the years there are quite a few subjects that have got me ‘het up’. One that has bugged me for many years is how we get youngsters interested in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) For a typical expression of my views see The Daily Telegraph - Richard Holway the IT veteran gets het up about education.

As I said in the article, almost all of the people who made it big in tech had a STEM subject background. That applies today with Facebook and Google, yesterday with Microsoft and Oracle and back in the really old days of tech with IBM. In every case the founders of these companies had a STEM subject background.

Here in the UK the number of students applying to university to study a STEM subject has halved since 2000. Last year it was just 24,000 (compared to 300,000 in China and 450,000 in India) Even then, amazingly, over 20% of students (and 29% of post graduates) studying STEM subjects at UK Universities are from abroad. One of the suggestions that the working party I sat on made to HM Govt was that there should be some financial incentives for students to take such degree course. And I would therefore be absolutely delighted if the reports in the Sunday Times 17th Feb 08 (see second article in link to John Waples AGENDA column A degree of sense) , that Gordon Brown is considering dropping tuition fees for such subjects, turns out to be true.

However, this is a bit too late in the process. We need to get youngsters interested in STEM subjects soon after they leave the womb.

Indeed, it is worth noting that many of the tech leaders either didn’t go to university at all or left without a degree! Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) only completed two years of his computer sciences degree at Harvard. (Indeed, for those remotely interested, Holway has been interested in science from a very early age. My favourite toy when I was three was my Meccano set. I took Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A level but didn’t get high enough grades to get into University. Only about 5% of youngsters went to University in 1965 – compared to over 40% today. I understand that the grades I did get would translate into straight As today and guarantee me a place! Anyway, joining the computing industry on 1st Jan 1966 did my ‘career’ far, far more good than any BSc)

Since 2002, there has been a 15% fall in the numbers taking maths at A-level in England, while those taking physics fell 14% and computer sciences 47%.

What we need to do is change the perception of technology in young people. We need to show that it’s technology that can and does ‘change the world’. That a career in technology can be more exciting and rewarding even than one in media or sport. This is not an idle boast – it really is true! Tell me any industry where you could build something worth $15b, that put you on the front cover of every newspaper, was used by over 60m young people worldwide everyday, all by the time you turned 23? Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook did it. I mean, how cool is that?Perhaps it’s the media that can help here. I really can’t think of any character on the TV currently who portrays tech in an attractive light. (On Coronation Street the only two people that have ever been seen with a laptop were Richard Hilman (mass murderer) and Ken Barlow (70 year old ex-teacher). I don’t think a computer has ever been seen on Eastenders) The only comedy series about tech is the IT Crowd where all the IT characters are made out to be right nerds.

For all their shortcomings, Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice have increased interest in business issues – we need something that does the same for tech. The very future survival of the tech industry in the UK depends on it.

1 comment:

Charlie said...


Well said.

There is a fundamental problem in this country in that most of the public perceive an “engineer” as someone who fixes the washing machine or mends the road. There is no differentiation between “technician”, “fitter” or “engineer” and so engineering is not seen as an attractive career option. As an engineer who has made a career in marketing, I believe there is a desperate need to market and differentiate the professional engineer. This is not elitism. In this country we do not seem to have a problem with book-keepers and chartered accountants, or paralegals and barristers so why not a campaign to differentiate technicians and Engineers?

They seem to be able to make this distinction in the US and Germany, so why not the UK?

A financial incentive to students would also help as it’s hard work reading for an engineering degree – I remember doing 32 hours of lectures and tutorials a week back in 1977 when my arts contemporaries were doing 10. I don’t think it has changed.

Keep up the campaign.

Geoff Chaplin, London